“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;” wrote Elizabeth Bishop in her poem “One Art”, “so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster.” The pithy, gallows wisdom of this observation always worms its way into my head each time I think about all the referendi and nearly run elections the Scottish people have lost out on over the years: twice in 1979 with the devolution referendum and the election of Margaret Thatcher; the painful General Election result of 1992 when John Major, unbelievably, retained power and, of course, 2014 when Yes just failed to pip No. Whether these political events were a “disaster” (they were for me) history will illuminate. Every time I hear what comes out of David Cameron’s duplicitous mouth it translates into Elizabeth Bishop’s poem and I turn into a Caithnessian version of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream”. These are hard times.
The first days of February are the time of Imbolg which is the Celtic festival to mark the beginning of Spring, when the old Cailleach of Winter emerges to gather her firewood. The story is that if she wishes to make the Winter last longer she will make the day of Imbolg bright and sunny so that she can gather plenty of fuel. So it was that people hoped that Imbolg would be a day of bad weather as it meant that the Cailleach would still be asleep and Winter would almost be over. As I write this the North of Scotland is covered in snow. So I feel optimistic, despite having the worst Tory government in power in Westminster since 1979.
Yet Elizabeth Bishop and Edvard Munch follow me around especially when I watch the Scottish Parliament at First Minister’s questions or, even worse, whatever goes on at Westminster at any time. The latter represents the present edition of what Tom Paine called the “Old Corruption” and the former is the Munchian blood pressure inducing frustration of not turning initiative into action – “the art of losing isn’t hard to master”. If the SNP in general and the current Scottish government in particular think there will be a better time than 2016 to implement radical change in order to secure the independence of or our country then I think they are wrong. The Cailleach of Winter may just be biding her time when it comes to a better Spring but meanwhile the “Old Corruption” grows daily more corrupt.
As far as the Treaty of Union of 1707 is concerned it was corrupt from the start.When the 31 Scottish Commissioners and their 31 English counterparts assembled in The Cockpit Theatre in London in April 1706 and after the opening speeches from each side, the two sets of negotiators retired to separate rooms and then notes were passed from room to room.
This went on for four months. The “agreed text” was then sent to the Scottish and English parliaments who both passed Acts approving it which were subsequently translated into a treaty signed by Queen Anne, the monarch of the two countries. From that day onward the English Parliament acted as though the only difference to its affairs was that it now incorporated 16 Lords and 45 MP’s. In 2015 with the 56 new members crowded onto the Westminster benches like hens in a deep litter this sense of Scotland being absorbed into an alien legislature was reinforced.The historical shady dealings and subsequent serial reneging which has gone on via the Smith Commission since the infamous public “Vow” made by the Unionist leaders in September 2014 and the construction of the new Scotland Act have all the familiar hallmarks of 1707 and the “Old Corruption”. The lesson of the past 307 years for the Scottish people is this: you cannot hold trustworthy negotiations with a system of government which does not recognise anything other than its own interests and those of whom it represents: which is the rich and powerful.
For the “Old Corruption” read “New Corruption”. When former KGB and FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko was murdered by polonium-210 poisoning in London in 2006 the world was shocked. When Sir Robert Owen published the report into Litvinenko’s death late this January and was sent to the Home Secretary the reaction from the UK government was muted. Putin was to blame. Britain will consider sanctions against Russia. Blah blah blah. On the other hand David Cameron made it clear that “We will have to go on having a relationship with Russia.” The assassination of Alexander Litvinenko tells us more about the corruption of London property prices and the criminality at the heart of the London economy than it does about the corruption and criminality of Putin’sregime in Russia. For make no mistake money is at the heart of this unsavoury episode just as it was at the heart of the Treaty of Union in 1707.
The tiny amount of polonium-210 which killed Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 would have cost tens of millions of pounds on the open market. It is one of the most toxic and highly radioactive materials there is. The Home Office forensic pathologist Dr Nathaniel Cory said that the post-mortem examination carried out on Litvinenko’s body was the “most dangerous ever undertaken in the Western world”. He and his colleagues had to wear white radiation-proof suits,protective gloves and specialised hoods with air pumped into them through a filter during the process. No such protection or filter has ever been applied to the vast quantities of Russian cash which has poured in to the City of London and which helps to bolster its reputation as the money laundering capital of the world. Imagine, if you can, what the reaction would have been if nuclear material had been found to have been smuggled into London by someone from the Middle East?
When the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich premiered his “Prelude andFugue for piano in F minor” before the Union of Composers in Moscow in 1951 the reception was not good. The apparatchiks did not care for the “dissonance”of the piece (which, actually, is very serene) and one said that Shostakovich had committed “sins against surrounding reality”. When David Cameron and his Tory lave express moral outrage at something other governments have done, such as assassinations, bombings etc – (or on the other hand occasional acts of general human kindness – these also meet with Tory displeasure) – they too commit “sins against surrounding reality”. Shostakovich rose up above the corruption of his time. The government in London create corruption’s harbour.
Meanwhile back in Holyrood the cautious feet do slowly shuffle. In less than “a hundred days” we will have the Scottish Parliamentary elections. With history on their side and the stench of the “Old Corruption” wafting up from that place on the Thames the SNP are surely, obviously (hopefully) going to inspire the Scottish people to rise up and roar like lions after slumber? Of course they are not. What we will see instead is a policy which will be a defence of what we have got, constructed as an advance on what we had. The prime moments of history have, unfortunately, a consistently bad habit of slipping away from those who think they create them. The SNP will, if polls are to be believed, achieve another, bigger, landslide come May and Scotland will still remain a northern satellite province of the UK, block grant fed and devolution dependent, no matter what situation the tax gathering powers the Scotland Bill dog-dances us into. What hope for real taxes on land values and ownership? Where will be the fresh thinking on renewable energy so that we can actually use it to sustain our economy and create wealth for our nation, our people? How, if we remain so cautious, can we rescue the North Sea oil industry from the greedy fools in Westminster who have, according to Larry Eliot in the Guardian, “discovered,extracted (and) squandered” it? A $30.00 a barrel oil price today is only volatile because of the previous forty-five years of wasting resources.
So what is to be gained, exactly, from waiting for the xenophobic Tories to drag us kicking and screaming, Brit-exiting out of the EU? Shostakovich once said “I think slow but write fast.” There have to be good, robust answers to the questions of currency and banking, land ownership and broadcasting and they have to be bravely put to the Scottish people now. The SNP will win the next election and the one after that – and then what? Will they, in their turn, begin to commit “sins against surrounding reality”; will they become the “OldCorruption”?